In an issue that has pit neighbor against neighbor, the Cherokee County Board of Education rejected Cherokee Charter Academy’s third attempt to open a local school.
The 4-3 vote was met with a standing ovation in a Friday night board meeting at Cherokee High School. Parents and taxpayers sat in sections by shirt color – red for supporters of Cherokee Charter Academy and black for those who wanted the school board to reject the charter.
“The public school system works for me,” said Cherokee mom Lisa-Marie Haygood, who wore black. “I’d like to see our school district continue to explore choice.”
But, Haygood said, Cherokee Charter Academy is not proposing anything that isn't already offered in the district. “Bring us a performing arts school, bring us a technology school, bring us a not-for-profit organization that is here to educate children.”
The idea of a charter school in Cherokee County was met with over 2,600 applications and a groundswell of support from parents concerned about slipping test scores at their neighborhood schools. The overwhelming interest grew the charter school's rosters from over 700 students to 995. The school, which was set to open in August, could never win board approval, however. It was rejected in 2009 and 2010 because of concerns about its finances, governance and budget.
Cherokee Charter Academy is one of 16 schools whose operating contracts were voided when the state Supreme Court dismantled the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, a decision that affected 16,500 students. The high court ruled that the authorization process was unconstitutional and local schools have the sole franchise authority on approving neighborhood charter schools.
Parents were disappointed by the third rejection, but refuse to give up.
"We will continue to fight," said Ted Handey, who has a fifth grader accepted at Cherokee Charter Academy.
Organizers say they will appeal to the state Board of Education for approval as a state special charter school. That vote will be held Tuesday.
School board members said the charter school wasn't right for the district and the price was too high with 995 students. To raise $3.4 million for a school of 500 -- the board's counter proposal -- Cherokee school superintendent Frank Petruzielo said the board would have to consider either laying off 55 teachers, increasing furlough days, eliminating step raises, hiking taxes or siphoning reserves. If the charter was allowed to continue with 995 students, it would be a $6.8 million impact; or $40 million over five years.
"We are not talking about small change," Petruzielo said.
Board members Mike Chapman, Janet Read, Robert Wofford and Rick Steiner voted against the charter petition. Board members Michael Geist, Kim Cochran and Rob Usher voted in favor.
“What I hate the most about this situation is that we should not be pitting one against the other,” said school board member Chapman before the vote. He also told those who wanted more choices to consider relocating. "If you feel like the Cherokee County school system isn't meeting your needs you have the option to move."
School officials also said the charter school's application had continued deficiencies and question whether the charter school was giving too much control to its partner, Charter Schools USA, a for-profit education management firm. Some also wondered whether enough students had the opportunity to apply.